Hong Kong’s Umbrella Soldiers

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Veterans of the 2014 Umbrella movement in Hong Kong are turning to formal politics. The young leaders of the street demonstrations that brought the central business district to a standstill in an effort to gain democratic elections have founded new political parties.

At the launching of Demosisto on April 10, founder Joshua Wong said his party seeks a voice for Hong Kong’s people . “At least let Hong Kongers decide the future of Hong Kong,” said Wong, “rather than allowing the Communist Party to determine our future.” Wong, the 19-year-old former leader of high school student group Scholarism, is joined by Nathan Law, Agnes Chow, and Oscar Lai, who led university students during the 2014 protests. (The party’s name combines the Greek roots for “people” and “to stand”.) Chow told the Guardian that her party favors a referendum to decide Hong Kong’s future after 2047.

If their goal of self-determination seems an unremarkable platform for a political party, remember that Hong Kong was returned to mainland communist rule in 1997 without the consent of its people. The lack of legitimacy underlying Hong Kong’s relationship with the mainland is causing increasing tension in Hong Kong—at the same time that Beijing has prevented further progress toward democracy in the territory. Moreover, the Sino-British Joint Declaration, the treaty that ostensibly protects Hong Kong’s autonomy, rule of law, and civil liberties guarantees them only for fifty years. “In other countries and other cities, when they are facing important policies or controversial policies, they use referendums to decide,” Chow said. Baggio Leung, the founder of another new party Youngspiration, agrees. “We cannot wait until 2046 to plan the post-2047 future,” he says.

It’s easy to be skeptical about the parties’ prospects—and some of their positions. Election rules devised by Beijing pit democrats against each other, favoring pro-Beijing parties, while legislative procedures make it almost impossible to advance a pro-democracy agenda. Demosisto criticizes Hong Kong’s “capitalist hegemonies” in the same sentence as it does China’s Communist Party, even though the Joint Declaration protects the economic system and arguably is among Hong Kong’s key assets, both internationally and to Chinese leaders.

The fate of Hong Kong’s 7.2 million people has always been a function of power and geopolitics, certainly not law or Beijing’s respect for treaties. “To a Westerner,” Steve Tsang of the University of Nottingham has written, “the idea of Hong Kong people administering Hong Kong within the framework of ‘one country, two systems’ may imply that after 1997 Hong Kong will be free to run its own domestic affairs with no interference from Beijing as long as PRC sovereignty is acknowledged. Such an interpretation is totally unacceptable to Beijing.” Indeed, late last year a Chinese diplomat reportedly told the Foreign Affairs Committee of the British House of Commons that the Joint Declaration was already void.

Unfortunately, Hong Kong’s putative defenders abroad appear unwilling to deviate from the blueprint laid out in the 1980s and 1990s for Hong Kong, no matter how unsuccessful it has proved. On a visit to Hong Kong on April 8, British Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond stated that the relationship between Hong Kong and the mainland was “generally working well” and he hoped that the “one country, two systems” arrangement would continue “in its current form way into the future. “ That sounds overly credulous given that in February Hammond declared a “serious breach” of the Joint Declaration over Beijing’s kidnapping of Lee Bo, a British citizen and Hong Kong resident, and four other men associated with a local bookstore selling material about the CCP and its leaders out of a storefront. Beijing and its proxies in Hong Kong are already lashing out at the ideas being expressed by the new parties. This is not to be taken lightly given Beijing’s treatment of Tibetans and Uighurs as terrorists for peacefully asserting their identity and human rights.

The United States has long deferred to its ally Great Britain about Hong Kong, enabling Washington to avoid confronting Beijing. But the U.S. has also made self-determination an essential element of its policy toward Taiwan, regarding the consent of Taiwan’s people to a merger with China as non-negotiable. Self-determination should have been offered to Hong Kong’s people in 1997. The fact that it wasn’t does not mean Hong Kong’s people, or China’s for that matter, are any less entitled to it.

The idea animating these veterans of the protests of 2014—dubbed Umbrella soldiers by the Hong Kong press—is compelling. It deserves frank and open discussion even though, or perhaps because, it exposes the flaws and illegitimacy of the failing “one country, two systems” arrangement, in which Hong Kong’s people had no say.

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